SINGAPORE/TOKYO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's message of a bigger global security role for Japan when he speaks at a regional forum this week is likely to find a receptive audience as concerns grow in Asia about China - although some will refrain from clapping too loud for fear of offending Beijing.
While Japan has a festering dispute with China over islands in the sea between the two Asian economic giants, tensions have also spiked between Beijing and several Southeast Asian nations over rival claims to the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
Abe is to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday, a forum for defence and security experts from Asia, including the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United States and Australia.
The conservative prime minister is expected to explain his stepped-up push to lift a ban that has kept Japan's military from fighting overseas since World War Two. "Tensions are rising in the Asia-Pacific. I want to send a message to the world about Japan's pro-active contribution to peace based on international cooperation," Kyodo news agency quoted Abe as telling a parliamentary panel on Thursday.
Despite harsh memories of Japan's wartime occupation of much of Southeast Asia, several countries in the region may view the message favourably because of China's increasing assertiveness. "The ASEAN countries which have disputes with China will support him," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "Japan can be much more forthright on its criticism of China than ASEAN as a grouping can be." Some of the most trenchant criticism of China has come from the Philippines and more recently, Vietnam.
Earlier this month, China parked a huge oil rig in waters that are also claimed by Vietnam, and scores of ships from the two countries have been squaring off in its vicinity. On Tuesday, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank, prompting Hanoi and Beijing to trade barbs over who was to blame.
China has also angered the Philippines with reclamation work on a disputed island and the building of what appears to be an airstrip. "We welcome Japan's contribution to the enhancement of security and stability in the region, including its plan to play a larger security role in the region," a senior Philippine defence official said.